Private Prisons: Yes or No?

            Within the past forty years, private prisons have reemerged in the United States. But what does privatization exactly mean in this context? Private for-profit contractors own and run prisons with public funds the government gives them to cover the costs of incarceration. The United States, Britain, and Australia are among the few countries in the world that delegate operation of prison facilities to the private sector. Many states have switched to the privatization of prisons in the hopes of being more “cost-effective.” However, some studies have suggested that private prisons are not more cost-effective; instead, factors that are indifferent to whether the prison is publicly or privately owned dictate cost, such as economies of scale, how old prison facilities are, and security level.

            Private prisons used to be widespread in the United States until the twentieth century when the government took over most prison operations. Privatization started in 1979 when the US Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) contracted private firms to detain illegal immigrants awaiting trial or deportation. Private firms such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) began incorporating and got their foot in the door early. These firms could create detention facilities much more quickly. In 1985, firms began contracting in areas in Florida, New Mexico, and Kentucky to operate their jails.

            Why the shift from public to private? The prison population exploded at the onset of the War on Drugs. Up until 1980, there were under 500,000 inmates in prison. After 1980, the prison population steeply grew, reaching over 2,000,000 Americans incarcerated in 2000. As overcrowding wracked prisons, by 1991, forty states were found to be operating prisons that violated the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Also, reimbursements to private firms could be made using operations funds instead of money from capital accounts, which made it easier to fund private prisons instead of public.

            The strongest argument for switching from public to private is that it is more “cost-effective,” although this is still widely debated and some research suggests it does not alleviate costs. In a meta-analysis on private prison management (private prisons fully owned and operated), it was found that other factors, such as economies of scale, the age of facilities, and security level are more likely to affect the cost of operation, not who the owner is. Some critics of prison privatization claim that in the long-run it will end up being more expensive because there will be a need to keep a constant or increasing prison population to drive profits.

            So are privatized prisons worth it? Private firms are allowed to lobby Congress, and wouldn’t it be worth it to them to lobby for harsher laws to ensure larger prison populations, which means larger profits? Can profit and justice exist simultaneously?

By Cayman Kai Macdonald


            Maahs, Jeff and Travis C. Pratt. “Are Private Prisons More Cost-Effective Than Public Prisons? A Meta-Analysis of Evaluation Research Studies.” Crime & Delinquency, 1999. Vol. 45, No. 3, pp 358-371.

            McDonald, Douglas. “Public Imprisonment by Private Means: The Re-emergence of Private Prisons and Jails in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.” British Journal of Criminology, 1994. Vol. 34, pp 29-48.


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